A Brief Background and History of Arakan
With four dynastic eras; Dhanyawaddy, Vesali, Laymro and Mrauk-U, Arakan is thought to have been an independent nation for over 5,000 years until it was conquered by the Burmese in 1784. At its peak the kingdom was taking tribute from as far away as Mushidabad, India in the west to the Mon capital of Pegu in the east and much of lower Burma. Archaeological evidence suggests that it was also the first kingdom in the region to begin using currency and had many far-reaching trade networks.
In 1824, it was taken by the British and administered as an annexed state of India by the East India Trading Company. In 1826, the first official order was drawn up stretching from the mountainous region of Paletwa down to Cape Nargis in the Irrawaddy Delta, giving Arakan a total area of over 20,000 square miles. This was later decreased when the British separated the southern Bessein region.
Following a three year period under the rule of the Japanese fascist regime (1942-45), Arakan became encompassed into the Union of Burma, largely by default, and has since been under the rule of successive Burmese regimes, none of which have granted the Arakanese even the slightest autonomy. The first democratic government of Burma ruled in 1952 that Paletwa Township become part of Chin State, decreasing Arakan to its current size of 14,200 sq. ml. However, the majority of Paletwa’s population are still Arakanese.
Arakan has a rich traditional culture, largely characterised in its literature, music, dance and religious buildings. Evidence of early literature can be found in the region dating back to first century AD. It is believed that Rakha Wanna (Arakanese alphabet) evolved from the Brahmin languages of Northern India.
Arakan, the land of the great image, traditionally professes Theravada Buddhism. Almost 100% of the Arakanese (Rakhaing) are Buddhists and the religion is an important element of Arakan and its nationality. It is believed that the Arakanese have been learning the teachings of Buddhism since Gautama Buddha visited Arakan during the reign of King Sanda Surira in 6thcentury BC. There are hundreds of ancient pagodas, temples and shrines in Arakan to this day especially in the old capital, Mrauk-U.
The most famous of these works is the Mahamuni Buddha Image that is now in Mandalay in central Burma. The Buddha statue was taken from Kyauktaw Township in 1784 by King Bodawpaya as one of many spoils of war. It is 4 metres high, and the statue is made of bronze, weighing 6.5 tones. Archaeologists believe the image was probably cast during the reign of King Chandra Surya, who ascended the throne in AD 146, some 600 years after the Buddha actually passed away.
Modern day Arakan
Today, the state has approximately 4 million inhabitants, primarily of Rakhaing ethnic origin. Most of these people live in rural areas and make a living from sustenance farming and fishing. The region benefits from a wealth of natural resources from its ancient forests, bountiful ocean and fertile plains. The state is divided into five districts, Site-tway, Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Kyaukphyu and Thandwe, which are then divided into 17 townships. Within these townships there are a total of 1,164 village tracts.
The state capital is Site-tway in Site-tway district, traditionally known as Akyab, and has an estimated population of 400,000. It is situated on the Bay of Bengal on an estuarial island at the convergence of the Kaladan, Laymro and Mayu rivers, surrounded by fertile land. The city grew significantly during the British colonial era when it was a very important commercial town, a centre for imports and exports, especially rice.
The modern socioeconomics of Arakan can be largely characterised by an extreme lack of development. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) figures from June 2007 found that only 41% of the state’s inhabitants had sustainable access to improved water, while a mere 36% had sustainable access to improved sanitation. These figures ranked the state lowest and second lowest respectively when compared with Burma’s other states and divisions. The same study also showed that Arakan ranked lowest and second lowest for its primary school enrolment rate and young adult literacy level. At the same time, the unemployment rate of 15-24 year olds was highest in the country too, at just over 11%.
The large majority of Arakan State’s inhabitants live in rural areas. These people make a living from fishing and farming and rely heavily on the use of rivers for both. In addition to important fish stocks in the ocean, local populations get much of their food from these rivers and their tributaries. Furthermore, over 85 % of Arakan State’s cultivated farmland (primarily paddy) is located along their valleys – two of the few large flat areas in the region. Due to a lack of good roads, the trade of both fish and agricultural products in the region is dependent on the use of waterways.
Throughout its history, Arakan has been largely reliant on agriculture, predominantly the production of rice. In fact, the area is one of Burma’s two main rice-producing regions, along with the Irrawaddy Delta. Since Burma’s first coup d’état rice production industry has been ruthlessly manipulated by the authorities to benefit the powerful and wealthy military. The majority of profits made from farming and fishing go straight into the hands of the SPDC, funding further military expansion and fuelling more human rights abuses, while millions of workers live in extreme poverty.